Our principal destination for the day was a visit to western Europe’s largest national park, about 140 miles east of our starting point, Hvolsvöllur. We were headed for Skaftafell, the oldest national park in the country, now included in the vast Vatnajökull National Park. (A fell is a mountain or hill, while a jökull is a glacier.) Along the way we passed lots of small waterfalls descending from the coastal ridge and admired the moss that thickly carpets roadside lava fields when we stopped to stretch our legs. The vast glaciers that provide the soil and water for the coastal plains came into view in this stretch of the coast, building anticipation of the vast icy slopes at Skaftafell.
The Skaftafell park center is located at the foot of hills between two big glaciers, Skeiðarárjökull and Skaftafellsjökull. It has a very nice visitors center with displays explaining the geology and human history of the area, as well as artifacts from early research trips on the glaciers. Commercial guide companies have reception centers in small buildings along the edge of the visitors’ center’s parking lot. There is still no entrance fee to the park, so the lot is pretty full most summer days. There is also a campground without a separate entrance just past the parking lot, adding to the traffic.
Our plan was to do a moderate hike in the park. I expected some discussion of whether we should check out the visitor center first, but we set out for the trailhead as soon as we had our daypacks ready to go. Our destination was Svartifoss (black waterfall) that appears on many postcards and tourist snapshots. I have often visited it on the way to farther destinations in the park, but this was our first real hike of the trip. We wanted to see how everyone’s knees felt about going up and down Icelandic trails and we knew there would be a lot of people on the trail.
We hiked a three-mile loop that felt like more, with lots of photo stops and brief interactions with other hikers from many countries on the trail. I remember hearing Icelandic, Spanish, Italian and British English; I am sure there were Asian and Indian visitors as well.
We ate lunch somewhere along the way and returned to the car in early afternoon. Bragi suggested we really should visit Jökulsárlón or Glacial Lagoon, as it is not much farther east (35 miles) along Highway 1. It is another very popular tourist stop, with duckboats doing tours among the icebergs calving from the glacier. We agreed to skip the boat tour and walk both the beach below the bridge and the shoreline beside the Lagoon. In August of 2016 the icebergs seemed about half the size of those in my photos a decade earlier. I realized that Susan didn’t have this comparison, so I did not mention my disappointment. I hoped the shrinkage reflected this summer’s warm temperatures, and not the general trend of quickly shrinking glaciers caused by climate change.
We enjoyed walking the dark beach and looking at the chunks of ice glistening on the sand as they shrank. There were many fantastic shapes, and many photographers trying to capture the perfect image for their recorded memories.
The bridge at the mouth of the lagoon was built with concern for the possible effect of an iceberg the size of an apartment building ramming the structure. Fortunately, a clever engineer designed an iceberg trap that sits on the floor at the mouth of the lagoon, about fifty feet upstream from the bridge. I picture it as a broad bar with strong metal teeth extending toward the surface of the water. Nine-tenths of each iceberg is underwater (remember from grade school science class?) so icebergs that won’t fit under the bridge are stopped until they shrink down to a size that slides easily under the valued structure.
We walked beside the lagoon as well, taking photos there, too. We ended our visit there trying to skip stones that were rarely flat across the still lagoon waters, and then attempting to flip a floating chunk of ice by tossing rocks to shift its balance. I think the nine-tenths-below-the-water rule spelled failure from the start, but it was a nice day and we may have been reluctant to climb back into the car.
It was 77 miles back to our lodging at a farm hostel near Kirkjubæjarklaustur, but we enjoyed the very green scenery, once we had passed the large glaciers and their gray outwash plains. Susan walked from the highway junction near the village to the pretty local waterfall, Stjornafoss, and an interesting local landmark known as Kirkjugólf, the Church Floor. The twenty-five by thirty-foot Floor is composed of the tops of a small field of basalt columns.
This little village is one of my favorite stops on the south coast of Iceland. But I have to admit that pronouncing Kirkjubæjarklaustur was a big challenge for me when I first visited here. After I had picked up a little vocabulary it was easier. Kirkju = church, bæjar = farm, klaustur = monastery/convent. Any word this long in a Germanic language is going to be a composite, so the challenge is to split the long word into manageable short ones. Figuring out where each syllable ends is a longer term issue.
No one has ever called me a foodie, but I have to admit that good food is one of the attractions of this area. I have stayed at least twice at Geirland, a really nice farm inn, a couple kilometers inland from the village. They serve excellent meals, but were not in our budget this trip. Once I had my Icelandic phone working (it took the second day in Iceland to get the battery charged, new phone company directions correctly interpreted, etc.), I phoned Geirland to see if they might have room for us in the dining room this evening. ‘No, they had a big tour group coming in, they were sorry but they had no room for us at the table.’
My next choice was the Systrakaffi, a casual café near the highway junction where I had enjoyed lunches and late afternoon teas in the past. It was seven by the time we got there and there was a crowd at the door. We asked the people ahead of us and they said it seemed like a long wait for a menu that was shrinking with the evening’s food supply. We thought about returning to our hostel and pulling out one of our freeze-dried meals. Someone in the parking lot suggested another café — actually a deli they said, down the local road a bit farther. I don’t know that Kaffi Munkar had been there the last time I visited the area, but they featured the excellent local farmed fish, bleikja or arctic char. I don’t eat farmed fish at home; there are lots of nice healthy wild fish available here. In Iceland I try out what is on the menu and have found bleikja delicious and affordable. Susan chose something more familiar to her and we both enjoyed our meals.
Our farm hostel lodging turned out to be another double bed in an even smaller room than our lodging the previous night. This hostel did have two bathrooms for the five rooms of guests, and beautiful farm scenery on the (ten mile?) country road from the highway. I slept well in the quiet surroundings. I think it was overpriced and cannot make any recommendations for budget lodging in this area.
At the end of the day I recorded the birds we had seen so far: whimbrel, great skua, arctic skua, arctic tern, fulmar, red wing, wagtail, whooper swan, plover, snipe, oyster catcher. It has taken a while for me to become familiar with these north Atlantic birds, but birds are most of the wildlife to be seen in Iceland, so I enjoy recognizing them as we pass.